Agritourism gains ground in Napa, Marin, Sonoma counties
Beyond food, farms are increasingly producing a bumper crop of another commodity – tourists.
Revenue from visitors slurping, sipping, studying, sightseeing or shopping on farms tripled from 2002 to $949.3 million in 2017, with $84 million in California alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. Since those figures were compiled, droughts and later a coronavirus outbreak forced more ranchers and farmers to rethink their business models.
Millennials, in particular, have contributed to this desire to learn how our food is cultivated and how to take part in that education.
“I think this will continue to grow. We have a younger generation coming back to the farm. And as they have more income and more families, they want to continue to have these experiences. I see no reason that (this trend) would go down,” American Farm Bureau Federation Economist Veronica Nigh said. “And with the pandemic, people are getting excited about being places outside their homes.”
California Farm Bureau Policy Analyst Rob Spiegel said interest in educational programs has risen substantially in the Golden State.
“Generally speaking, the industry — especially in California — there have been a lot of initiatives like the farm-to-fork dinners. Consumers want to know how animals are raised and to know if chemicals are used,” Spiegel said.
Call it nature’s reversal of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s legendary lyrics: “They pave paradise to put in a parking lot.”
In our own back yard
North Bay farms and ranches stretching across Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties have jumped on the bandwagon in luring guests and visitors to learn how they operate and sample everything from olive oil and wine to beef and produce.
Nestled in the Petaluma Gap on the border of Sonoma and Marin counties, the roots of the McEvoy Ranch stem from Nan Tucker McEvoy’s love of Italian culture. The newspaper heiress bought the 550-acre cattle ranch in 1990 and used the bucolic setting to plant 1,000 olive tree seedlings from Tuscany, without realizing the full extent of the path she would lay for future generations — in her own family. A private person who provided limited tours, McEvoy died in 2015.
Her son Nion has carried the legacy — with the help of Nan’s longtime gardener-turned-ranch President Samantha Dorsey, who celebrates her 20th year in 2021, along with ranch manager Michael Morelli, whose family owned the ranch he’s lived at or worked on for 73 years.
Coming out of pandemic, 1,150 guests in May alone (900 more than what was recorded in an average month in 2019) have gone down to the ranch to sip, slurp and shop on its serene Red Hill Road grounds, where the experience involves olive oil from the 57-acre orchard and wine tasting on the newly created patio next to one of its ponds alongside sweeping meadows.
“I think Nan would be very proud,” Dorsey said, while glancing over the visitors enjoying the patio grounds. In some respects, Dorsey’s career grew up on the McEvoy Ranch. She worked with Nan, starting out as the resident gardener.
Today, Dorsey and the younger McEvoy have converted a milk barn into an event space. There are gardening workshops and annual pruning demonstrations. The Community Mill Day invites neighbors to enjoy the harvest in mid-November.
“It’s part passion and part compassion for our community. We want to be a good contributor,” Dorsey said.
Difficulties bring need to diversify
The McEvoy Ranch has endured enough challenges to keep Dorsey busy.
The drought has reduced the water level of the ponds by two-thirds, with 22 million fewer gallons to use on the ranch. The plight is one that farmers know all about this year. To Dorsey, it’s a good thing olives use less water than most crops.
“The trees will survive, but the crop may be bad,” she said, referring to a less prolific harvest.
Much is at stake. Dorsey declined to disclose the privately held company’s annual revenues, but did offer that the retail store — which sells all things olives, wine and other gifts — contributes a third of the business to the bottom line. Sales from e-commerce and wholesale accounts for its beauty products split the remainder.
Expansion is imminent. Beyond hosting special events, the McEvoy Ranch offers three memberships for visitors wanting to become regulars. There are the “Foodie” club priced between $99 and $120; “Vintner” at $140-$160; and “Gourmand” at $199-$225.
The McEvoy Ranch has also joined in on the proliferation of CBD-infused products, with the recent launching of the Ode Oasis brand of olive oil offering the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis that is intended to have health benefits.